America is edging closer to a "papers please" society, at least when it comes to travel.
Where's the evidence? Just visit Arizona, where a judge last week ruled authorities could begin enforcing the "show me your papers" provision of the state's bitterly contested immigration law.
Or click on this page every now and then. It's where the Transportation Security Administration broadcasts its latest achievements to the mainstream news media. There, you'll read all about the latest airports to implement TSA Pre-Check, the agency's trusted traveler program that allows eligible passengers to receive "expedited" screening benefits.
My colleague, Nancy Trejos at USA Today, connected a few of the dots and documented the expansion of Pre-Check last week. The new system has screened -- or perhaps it's more accurate to say, "pre-screened" -- 2.7 million passengers since Pre-Check launched last October. TSA expects 35 airports to offer Pre-Check by the end of 2012.
So what's wrong with that? On the surface, nothing at all.
After all, the TSA's trusted traveler program doesn't cost anything, at least not yet. And what's the harm in surrendering a little personal information in exchange for access to a faster screening line where you can leave your shoes, light outerwear and belt on, and are allowed to keep your laptop in its case and your 3-1-1 compliant liquids and gels bags in a carry-on?
First, it's still unclear what kind of threat our shoes, light outerwear, belts, laptops and hair gel pose to aviation security. Yes, we've heard that terrorists might try to use these items for nefarious purposes, but so far, with the possible exception of shoe bomber Richard Reid, there's no credible evidence that our notebook computers could bring down a plane.
Critics might call this kind of threat a straw man, and the conspiracy theorists among them might argue that the threat was trumped up precisely in order to get the American public to surrender more information about itself.
I don't know if I'd go that far, but the TSA does have some explaining to do. Please tell me why my belt is dangerous while that of a trusted traveler isn't. Why does my MacBook need to be scanned, but that of a Delta Platinum member deemed "safe"?
But that isn't the biggest problem. It's that Pre-Check represents the latest step toward what many TSA-watchers consider a "papers please" society, a darker version of America that before 9/11 only existed in the pages of dystopian novels.
It's hardly the only threat to your travel freedom. The Real ID Act of 2005 put the country on that course by requiring a federal identification card that contains your full legal name, address, signature, date of birth, gender, a unique ID number and photo. Privacy advocates are fighting the implementation of that law, which, if nothing else, set a troubling precedent and paved the way for Pre-Check's implementation and acceptance.
But Pre-Check is particularly problematic because of the perceived trade-off. The federal government is basically saying, "We'll think you're a little less dangerous if you tell us a little more about yourself." Only, it doesn't bother to define "dangerous" or tell us why the information will help it make that determination. We just have to trust it.
Not all of us do. Activist and fellow journalist Edward Hasbrouck has waged a lonely campaign to challenge national ID requirements. His website, Papers Please, is a must-read if you're concerned about where these laws are taking the United States.
It isn't too difficult to see where all this is going. But I have a few insights, courtesy of the 17 years I spent in Europe. I lived only a half-hour drive from what was called the "Iron Curtain" -- a true "papers please" society. You could be stopped on the street and asked for ID, and if you didn't comply, you could end up in very serious trouble and you might even disappear under mysterious circumstances. You needed the government's approval to travel and if you wanted to leave the country, permission was rarely granted.
How far are we from living in such a country? As Pre-Check expands, civil liberties advocates would say we are moving closer. Too close.
I share their concern.
Think about it. What would stop the TSA from requiring all air travelers be "trusted"? Or from modifying some of its rules to "punish" the untrusted ones with a mandatory pat-down or trip through the feared full-body scanner?
What's to stop the TSA, which broadly interprets its mandate to safeguard all transportation systems -- including roadways, mass transit, NFL games and political conventions -- from asking for its "trust" elsewhere?
You'd probably laugh if someone suggested that a special license plate would give you "fast track" access through a road checkpoint, or that a government-issued ID would guarantee you don't have to wait in a long security line before boarding a New York subway. You would scoff at the idea of not being able to travel without a special plate or ID card.
And yet, that seems to be the direction in which travel (and with it, the rest of the country) is moving.
Sadly, no mainstream presidential candidate is taking a principled stand on the "papers please" problem. In fact, when it comes to these alleged civil liberties violations, a cynic might say both candidates have no principles.
Which is too bad. We deserve better.